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Edward F. Markquart

Series C
Cleanse Me From My Sin, Deep Within... Refiner's Fire

Advent 2
  Malachi 3:1-4

John the Baptist was a messenger sent by God to prepare people for the coming of Christ.  He said:  Prepare your hearts for the coming of Christ; cleanse yourself from the sin that is deep within; and be washed in the waters of baptism.

When my father was growing up as a boy on a farm in the early 1900s in southwestern Minnesota, his Saturdays were pretty much the same.  With his three brothers, he worked all day in the fields, then in the barn taking care of the animals, then his weekly Saturday night bath, then into the small town of Dunnell to shoot pool.  That’s what happened every Saturday, and Dad became a pretty good pool shark.  At that time in American history, my father and his family thought that one bath a week was sufficient.  Of course, by Friday night, he and his brothers started to smell like the animals, smell like the barn, smell a bit like the pigpen, but that was not a problem.  That’s just the way it was.  He had not yet been exposed to the American rituals of purification.  But.....

But within a generation, we were all committed to the American rituals of purification.  You know them well.  You practice them slavishly every day.  You do them every day, ritualistically, compulsively, and habitually.  Let me describe them and you will clearly recognize these behaviors in your life.

To help me this morning, you will notice I am carrying a small grocery basket in my hand filled with items from our neighboring grocery story, the QFC.  At QFC and other grocery stores, there are shelves upon shelves of bathing products that we need for our American rituals of purification, and I have chosen but a few.  First, you and I bath or shower every day, every morning and every night...with some form of scented soap.  Yes, scented soap.  You, of course, as a consumer, have many choices; there is shelf after shelf of scented soap for your choosing.  Here is Yardley’s ...You can smell like Oatmeal and Almond or...Aloe Vera or...English Lavender or...Peach Blossom.  For myself personally, I prefer this green soap called Original Irish Spring.  Of course, you can buy Ivory, but Ivory just...floats. That is all Ivory does. Here is a bottle of Washington Huskie soap, which would have been a best seller if we had gone to the Rose Bowl.  In the same section of scented soaps, were a few samples of more serious soaps:  Lava with pumice which gets extra dirty hands real clean; Fels-Naptha is a heavy duty laundry soap;  and Borax which looks like some kind of horse soap.  ... Now, the second step in the American rituals of purification, after you have bathed or showered with scented soap, is to wash your hair.  Once again, we have hundreds of options for shampoo.  I won’t demonstrate all the options here; I couldn’t afford samples of all of them.  ...Now, the third step in our rites of purification is some underarm deodorant.  We all use them; that’s just the way it is.  We have unlimited choices.  Here is Mennen’s Speed Stick.  Your underarms can smell spice...or musk...or fresh.  Here is a Lady’s Speed Stick, so the women too can do this rite quickly.  You can smell like a lemon, like a lime, like a lemon-lime, like menthol and just regular... Now, the fourth and last step that we all do as Americans is to use some form of cologne or perfume. can smell like a Brut...or a leather...Russian ...or English ...or you can smell like the Old Spices from your mother’s kitchen cupboards.  But its true:  every single one of us go through these American rituals of purification, daily, and we all believe that cleanliness is next to godliness.

The Bible, too, is concerned about cleanliness.  Both the Old Testament and New Testament have laws concerning clean and unclean.  Jesus said,  “Unless you are clean, you cannot be my disciple.”  But the Bible’s focus is not on the cleanliness of the skin but on the cleanliness of the inner heart; not on the cleanliness of the flesh but the cleanliness of the inner spirit; not on the cleanliness of the body but of the inner soul; not on the outer shell but on the inner person.  Jesus was enormously concerned about cleanliness, but his focus was on the “inside” of the cup and not the “outside. And John the Baptist, echoing the same theme, said: “Prepare for the coming of Christ to the earth”...prepare for the coming of Christ into your heart by being cleansed of your sin which is deep within in order to prepare for God to enter in. The Bible is very concerned about inner cleanliness.

John the Baptist lived at a time when the culture around him was being corrupted, corroded, contaminated, as it always is. His culture was infected with spiritual cacogenics that polluted the cultural waters that he drank and the cultural air that he breathed.  Everything in his culture around him was infected by these spiritual cacogenics.  Their marriages.  Their values.  Their ethics.  Their families.  Their way of life.  Their ways of religion.  Everything was contaminated by life in the city. And so were their inner hearts.  John the Baptist shouted:  “Come out to the wilderness; come into the desert; and cleanse yourself of the sin which is deep within.  May  your inner cup be washed clean.  May your inner heart be purified in order to prepare for the Christ to come and live inside of you. Prepare.  May your heart be prepared to receive the Christ.”

In order to understand John the Baptist more clearly, we will use the Old Testament prophecy from Malachi for today which compares the Baptist to “launders soap.”  Launders soap.  That is an anemic translation.  In the Revised Standard Version, it is called “fuller’s soap” which was used to wash the filthy hands of blacksmiths.  In the Jerusalem Bible, it is called  “fuller’s alkaline.” Not merely soap but alkaline.  I mean, super strong stuff.  You know, like some of this soap in my grocery basket:  Like Lava with pumice or Borax or Fels-Naptha.  It is the kind of soap which really digs in and gets the grease and dirt out; none of this Yardley’s soft soap for soft-skinned people. 

When I was a boy, growing up, I used to work as a “grease-monkey,” greasing cars and trucks.  My hands were permeated with grime, filthy grime that I couldn’t get out. I still have vivid memories of going into shop bathroom. The shop bathroom was as filthy dirty as my hands, and the bathroom had this strong granular soap with which I used to wash my hands over and over again.  I tried to get the grease that was deep within all my pores.  I scrubbed and scrubbed, even with a brush to get my hands clean.  Soft Yardley soap wouldn’t cut it.

Another example. In preparation for our families’ wedding this summer, my wife said we needed to have the carpets cleaned.  I asked “why?” since the carpets didn’t look bad to me.  No spots.  No obvious dirt.  We had vacuumed regularly.  We had even washed them ourselves.  Why the need for a carpet cleaner?  She then took me over to the carpet near the entry, pulled back the piling, and I was surprised to see what appeared to be sand way deep at the bottom of the piling.  That dirt was in there all right, way down deep in the shag of the carpet.  We needed a carpet cleaner to come in and get that deep dirt out. 

And that’s what John the Baptist is all about. John the Baptist reminds us that we have this sin, which is deep within that needs to be washed clean in order to prepare our hearts to receive Jesus Christ.  John the Baptist was like...fuller’s soap, like fuller’s get at the sin that is very deep within us.

The second image or word picture that is used by Malachi to describe John the Baptist is that he is like a “refiner’s fire.”  His words and message are to be scorching hot, to burn off the impurities in our lives.  When I think of a refiner’s fire, I think of my visits to my friend Jack Lyon and his aluminum smelter.  His business had a large rotary furnace, sixteen feet in diameter, rotating round and round, filled with molten aluminum, boiling red hot aluminum, burning off all the impurities.  It was a rather intimidating sight to look into a furnace of hot boiling lava of molten aluminum.  You knew that there was awesome and frightening power in that burning and boiling molten lava.   And so it is with God’s word from the Baptist.  His word was to be like a refiner’s fire; his word from God was to burn off the impurities in people’s lives; to burn off the impurities ... deeply imbedded ... in our lives.

Another image.  Think of a hot-dog stick, of a wiener roasting stick.  We have metal ones with red plastic handles that we take on all wiener roasts. Now, imagine if you will, that you didn’t really clean hot-dog sticks after the last time that you used them; that you roasted marshmallows, wiped them off, and put them away a little grungy.  And now you are going out for another hot-dog roast and you are ready to put your wiener or marshmallow on your stick and your wiener stick is still grungy dirty.  What do you do?  Do you put the wiener or marshmallow on? Of course not.  You know intuitively that you need to burn off the wiener stick; you need to put it into the hot fire and burn it clean. Then ...and only then ... it is ready to receive a new hot-dog or marshmallow.  And so it is with us.  In order to receive the purity of Christ within us, within our hearts, we know that we need to be purified as we prepare to receive Christ in our lives.

In our contemporary worship service, we often sing one particular praise song entitled “Refiner’s Fire.” The words come from the prophet Malachi for today and they sound like this:  “Purify my heart, cleanse me from my sin, deep within.  Refiner’s fire.  My heart’s one desire, is to be, holy, set apart for you Lord…ready to do your will.” Malachi is concerned about the sin that is deep within.                         

Another example.  From the children’s sermon today.  I had a lamp but the plug to the lamp was all corroded and dirty.  The plug was covered with tape and grease and grit and grime and would the light turn on?  Of course not.  I asked the children what to do and they all knew the answer:  “Clean the plug!!!”  In order for the light to shine, in order for the electricity and energy to flow into the light bulb, they all shouted together, “You have to clean the plug.”  So I cleaned the plug of the tape and grease and grit and grime and sure enough, the light went on.  And so it is within our lives:  we need to clean the contact points or the light won’t shine. ... We sometimes ask the question:  “How come my life doesn’t shine?  How come there is no lightness to my Christian life?”  Could it be that there is some corrosion, some contamination, some corroded contact that prevents the energy and electricity of God from flowing into your life.  That’s what John the Baptist is all about: he knows that for the energy and electricity of God to flow into your life there needs to be a cleaning....

So there are three metaphors or word-pictures that help us to understand John the Baptist:  alkaline soap, a refiner’s fire, a lamp with a corroded or dirty plug.  And all three of these word-pictures suggest the need for cleansing...of my sin, deep within, in order for the purity of God in Christ to enter into order for the energy and power of God to enter me.

Let me give you an example of how this works itself out.  I would like to use a familiar Christmas story.  You know it well.  Charles Dickens,  The Christmas Carol, with Ebenezer???  _______ (“Scrooge” the congregation answers).  And Bob??? _________ (“Crotchet” the congregation answers)  and  Tiny??? _______ (“Tim” the congregation answered).  As we all know Ebenezer Scrooge was the most miserly, penny-pinching, money-loving tightwad who ever lived.  The total preoccupation of his life was his work and his money.  Nothing else mattered to him....including Bob Crotchet who worked in his office and the sadness of his crippled son, including Tiny Tim and the poverty of that family.  Ebenezer truly didn’t see ... any of this, for his total focus was on his work and counting his money.  .... But it twas the night before Christmas, and on that night, as you recall, he was visited by three ghosts.  The ghost of Christmas past, the ghost of Christmas present, and the ghost of Christmas future, and all three ghosts confronted him with his sin that was deep within.

The first Christmas ghost was the ghost of Christmas past, and the ghost reminded him of a past love relationship that he had with a young woman.  The young woman had loved Ebenezer;  there had been the potential of tenderness, kindness, shared intimacy and love with her. But Ebenezer?  He was so preoccupied with the work of his hands, the money in his hands, the busyness of his hands that he missed the chance for love.  He was being confronted with his sin that was deep within.  Sadness overwhelmed him.  A grand possibility had been lost.  And suddenly there was the ghost of Christmas present and there Ebenezer saw Bob Crotchet trying to provide for his family; he saw Tiny Tim with his cane; he saw the poverty of the Crotchet family; and he saw the ridicule and the disdain that they had for him as a human being.  Sadness overwhelmed him, all because of his sin that was deep within.  And suddenly there was the ghost of Christmas future, and Ebenezer saw his grave and the chains of his business partner Marley. He saw how no one grieved his death. He saw that all his accumulations of wealth he had worked so hard for were dissipating away...and…and....and...Ebenezer woke up from this dream. He woke up from this nightmare, threw open the windows and shouted out into the street:  “What day is this?  Is it Christmas Day?  Have I missed it?  O, Thank God, it is Christmas Day, and there is time for me to visit the Crotchet’s and bring them the biggest turkey in town and hold Tiny Tim.”

Importantly,  you and I begin to see that there was no Christmas morning ..... without the night before Christmas ..... without the ghosts of Christmas that confront us and cleanse us from our sin which is deep within.  It is only as we are freed from that sin which is deep within that we experience the joy of Christmas morning.

God always sends us messengers like John the Baptist to be like “fuller’s soap” or “refiner’s fire.”  For Ebenezer Scrooge, the messenger came in the form of a dream that confronted him with his sin that was deep within.  For us, our divine messenger may be a pastor, a husband, a wife, a parent, a grandparent, a child, a friend, a co-worker, a counselor, a coach, and a teacher.  But be assured, God always sends us messengers to confront us with our sin that is deep within.

 One of God’s messengers to me was John Keller.  How I remember John Keller, my fuller’s soap, my refiner’s fire.  I was a young man, on internship at a hospital, in chaplaincy training, in group therapy that was part of that chaplaincy training. At that point in my life, I was struggling intensely with a sense of inferiority and superiority; having both an inferiority complex and therefore a need for a superiority complex.  Consequently, I felt I was better than Herb, another young pastor in our group.  For me at that point in my life, Herb represented all which was beige and boring; he was the essence of beige and boring.  I had a need to be better than beige and boring because I was afraid I was beige and boring.  And so I looked down my nose at Herb, thinking that I was superior to him.  Of course, I tried to cover up these feelings of superiority, but Herb knew, and I knew and God knew.  But worst of all, John Keller knew, and he was willing to be my fuller’s soap and my refiner’s fire. I was in need of much refining.  I can feel those conversations as if they were yesterday, John persistently asking me about my inner self, my need for self-surrender, my need to be cleansed of those debilitating inner qualities.  “I had a right to those qualities,” I said over and over again.  “It’s not my fault that I am six years younger than my nearest sibling; it is not my fault that I am sociologically like an only child; that I was spoiled rotten. My parents put up with my self-centeredness and still loved me.  Why couldn’t he?”  But John never let up with his persistent fuller’s alkaline soap, gently telling me that I would never be happy with the shape of that sin which was deep within me; that my life would never really light up; that I wouldn’t be content until I was confronted and cleansed of that sin that was deep within; that I needed to “let go and let God” his favorite phrase.  John Keller was right.  John Keller has been one of God’s many messengers to my life. 

I don’t know the shape of the sin that is deep within your life.  But be assured that God will always send you will send you messengers for you to confronted with your sin which is deep order for you to be cleansed, and purified and forgiven.

Whoops.  I would rather talk about the American rituals of purification.  They are much more interesting, much more charming, and more pleasant.  Let’s see, here in my basket I have some Yardley’s soap.  You can smell like .........   You see, it is true.  Cleanliness is next to godliness here in America.  Or, in the Bible, you can say, cleanliness is the beginning of Godliness.  Amen.

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